Berlinale 2021 review: A River Runs, Turns, Erases, Replaces (Shengze Zhu)

A River Runs, Turns, Erases, Replaces opens with a security camera feed of a square in Wuhan, the epicenter of the COVID-19 outbreak. Streets are mostly empty during days of lockdown. Until the morning of April 4th, 2020, when the quarantine is lifted and there’s a tribute to honor the dead at 10:00 local time. The whole country stands still for three minutes, all vehicles sound their horns and air raid sirens ring.

As someone living in Turkey this hits especially close to home, since we have a culture of this specific kind of mourning. Every year at 9:05 A.M. on November 10th we carry out the same ritual for our country’s founder Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the exact hour he died in 1938. This marks a breaking point in the country’s young history; embodies both respect and longing for many, while some see it as idolatry, and it has even been used in some films to an absurd comical effect in the past. Time has this force, obviously. Societies change, cities change as well, as do all their moving pieces and inhabitants. Wounds heal or people move on. The past is just memorabilia. Hurt is just measured by souvenirs or the freshness of those wounds.

A River Runs, Turns, Erases, Replaces is about that relation with the past and longing in an extreme period of trauma. Director Shengze Zhu left her country and moved to the US in 2010, and her relationship with the motherland is the main motivation for this documentary. The pace of change in a metropolis is already huge nowadays. Ten years can feel like a century, everything you associate with a town fading irreversibly. Every image in this film underlines that disconnect between the metropolis and its people. But in this case, that city has also been through an excruciating pain itself. Losing thousands of people to an epidemic, becoming the object of hate and fear for the rest of the world.

For sure, Zhu’s film unavoidably tries to clean that image, picturing Wuhan as any city. But that’s not the primary motivation, it’s more about a personal relationship with a big city. Not only her relationship, but every small person living under those enormous buildings and highways, a silhouette of a giant. There’s not a single line of dialogue in the film, but letters from some inhabitants appear on those images sometimes. Letters of people who’ve lost their loved ones to COVID-19. These letters express longing in these specific hard times, but also serve the film’s bigger purpose. You have one last memory with your passed father; in a car on your way to the airport, he mentions a new bridge to be built on the Yangtze River. When you come back to the city, maybe years later, that bridge is there in the hazy panorama, but your father’s not anymore. Is this the same city you knew? What makes the difference? The bridge, or the absence of your father? What do we associate change with? That old city and those old people, will they be forgotten with time? Gone forever? Or can a city, just like people, survive that change as long as someone remembers?

A film can do that for us. A film holds the memory of what is long gone. A River Runs, Turns, Erases, Replaces becomes an embodiment of that cinematic function. It holds the change, the pain, the longing. And wants us to focus on the river passing by. A river running through the everchanging city. Yes, maybe you can’t bathe in the same river twice. Running water represents change and new beginnings. But it also represents how nothing really changes. The only constant in this city is the river. It will always be there. It will run, turn, erase, replace. Sometimes in the form of a flood, like the one in Wuhan last summer. And it will show the world the futility of those huge structures, bridges, modern silhouettes. They’re not the lasting ones. It’s not us either. It is the river. And that’s actually comforting.

This is as personal as a documentary gets. But now that we’re living in a pandemic reality, it’s also undeniably universal. As someone who has lost a parent this past year, in a COVID ward, alone and away from us, going through Shengze Zhu’s own experience and reflection and seeing how elegantly she puts her longing in a cinematic poetry becomes truly heartbreaking.

The flow just goes on, having nothing to do with us. Change, death and separation, they’re just part of the flow, in their own time. And Zhu does not offer a bleak perspective. Closing her film with the song Drunk With City by the first punk band coming out of Wuhan since 1996, playing over old photos from the city, souvenirs of the past, she offers to embrace it all and move on, holding on to joy of life and change itself. Like a river does.